Back when I was in grad school I encountered a friend of mine, a doctoral student in a particularly abstruse area of mathematics, looking very crestfallen. “Pete”, I said, “what’s wrong?” He responded “Somebody found a practical use for my research.”
At Bloomberg Noah Smith is concerned that the pace of innovation is declining:
Unfortunately, innovation might be slowing down. Except for a brief resurgence in the late 1990s and early 2000s, developed-country productivity — of which innovation a major long-term driver — has been growing more slowly since 1973. Meanwhile, some studies suggest that research productivity is slowing down, so that it takes more scientists to glean each new insight across a variety of fields…
His proposals for changing the trend include:
- Give more money to younger researchers
- Give more money to less prestigious institutions (ROI is better)
- Devote more money to “novel research fields”
- Change patent laws to increase the rate at which private research spreads
- Zoning reform (I don’t follow his reasoning here)
- Improve our higher educational system
Probably the best way to improve our system of higher education would be to improve our system of K-12 education—colleges and universities devote too much effort to remedial education as it is.
Some of the decline in innovation is inevitable. We’ve already picked the low-hanging fruit. I’ve seen and written about the claim that there haven’t been any basic breakthroughs in 80 years. I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration.
I’ll repeat my proposal for increasing innovation: let the federal government fund a mass engineering program. The last federally-funded mass engineering program, the “space race”, produced an enormous amount of innovation. It revolutionize4 our society. Most present federally-funded R&D is medical research and the ROI on that is terrible.